by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2015 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
The visual is as important as the aural when electric guitar visionary Mark Wingfield seeks musical inspiration. The creative process that drove the British musician’s sixth solo album Proof of Light embodies that perspective. The trio effort, also featuring drummer Asaf Sirkis and bassist Yaron Stavi, offers an expansive instrumental worldview that uses scenes and stories, both experienced and imagined, as the catalyst for its nine compositions.
Wingfield’s guitar sound is as intriguing as his writing. It’s driven by his fingers first, with effects a secondary concern. Proof of Light finds him creating unique bends and exploring vibrato and glissando that some might mistake for technological intervention. His emphasis on the distinct physical possibilities of performance express his desire to have the guitar take on the characteristics of other instruments, such as sax, trumpet and piano.
He’s also an intrepid explorer of global music culture. While his output relays a focus on jazz, rock and classical influences, if listeners pay close attention, they’ll also hear inspiration from the musical traditions of Africa, India, Japan, Pakistan, and Turkey.
In addition to his solo output, Wingfield has recorded four improvised duo albums, I Walked Into the Silver Darkness, An Illustrated Silence, Dark Sonatas, and In Stories, with Kevin Kastning, another adventurous guitar spirit. Kastning employs custom acoustic guitars, including 12-string extended baritone and alto instruments. Together, Wingfield and Kastning tap into the muse to create spontaneous, nuanced compositions.
Wingfield has written extensively for other musicians as well. He’s been commissioned to create new music works for string quartets, jazz ensembles, classical duos, and solo pianists. He also teaches guitar master classes and workshops across the UK, including at the renowned Trinity College of Music in London.
Describe the meaning behind the title Proof of Light.
The “light” part of the title refers to the lights in windows I see at night in city apartments or in houses in the countryside. Inside each of those rooms are lives going on, emotions of every kind, conversations, scenes, and times. When I see windows lit up like this, it triggers my imagination and that feeds directly into musical inspiration for me. When I compose, a large part of my task is to render the feelings I get from these and other imaginations and impressions into music. When I've achieved this in a piece—creating music which represents these imagined scenes and atmospheres, the music is in a sense, proof of their existence. So, Proof of Light is a way of saying the music is a rendering of these imagined lives and times into existence. The cover of the album also represents this idea visually. You can see scenes of many lights in the windows of apartments in an abstracted city. You can also see flashes of light which, to me represent the emotional spirit of these lives. I don't expect people to get the same feelings I rendered into the music when they listen to it. Some people may, but I find it just as interesting that people will create their own imaginations and feelings when listening. In a sense, that's a creative and collaborative act on the part of the listener.
What evolution as a guitarist and composer does this album represent for you?
Every composition or recording I do is part of an evolving process, in the sense that each time I compose something, I am rendering musical ideas which are in my mind at the time. Once they’ve been used, I'll move on to something else. I get bored easily when it comes to music. When I compose, I want to excite or interest myself, which means I'm always looking looking for something new. There's another side to it as well for me. Composing is a craft and one that I strive to get better at. So, if I can compose something which renders what I had in mind more directly and with more depth, but at the same time I manage to do it using fewer notes, I feel like I have improved my craft. I think I managed to do that with Proof of Light.
With playing, I'm always trying to push forward and play more of the things I can hear in my head. What I mean is there are always things I can hear or feel that my fingers can't yet do or sounds I hear that my gear can't produce. I'm constantly trying to expand these areas.
In terms of guitar sounds, I’m just scratching the surface. I have a feeling that technology is right on the cusp of some really interesting new things. Music software designers have for a long time been trying to recreate the sounds of great hardware devices. Some of the best companies are now producing plugins which sound virtually indistinguishable from the hardware. In some cases, the software sounds even better. What it means for me is that I have much more interesting ways of shaping my guitar sound, which means I can get closer to some of the sounds I hear in my head.
What made Yaron Stavi and Asaf Sirkis ideal collaborators for Proof of Light?
I share some key musical sensibilities with both Asaf and Yaron. Although primarily jazz musicians, both of them cross over into rock music. Asaf also shares my interest in Indian music and Yaron crosses over into the classical world as I do.
One of the most important things I was looking for in musicians were people who could intuitively understand what the music for this album was about and react and interpret that. I didn't want players who would change the music into something else as soon as they started soloing. I was interested in people who would listen to the story inside the music and tell their own musical story in the context of that. There are a lot of great players out there who, given half the chance, will turn your carefully-crafted compositions into something which sounds like "just another jazz record" or a hark back to something from the ‘70s or ‘80s. There’s nothing at all wrong with either of these approaches, but it's just not what I'm trying to do. Asaf and Yaron are both musicians who come to a project without preset notions about how jazz is meant to sound. They’re both very open and sensitive to the story the music is trying to tell.
I chose Asaf because I wanted someone who was not going to do the expected thing on drums and someone who could produce the power and excitement of rock when called upon, but also the subtlety and imagination of jazz. Asaf makes a deep study and practice of Indian classical rhythmic forms, so he brings that to the music as well. I also have a very long-standing interest in Indian classical music and although there are not overt Indian influences on this album, like Asaf, those interests still underpin everything I do on some level. Asaf plays some really original and distinctive snare patterns which interest me and he's real sensitivity to the moods of each piece.
When composing, I knew that I wanted the bass to play some of the melodies. I didn't want an album in which every melody on every track was played by the guitar. That would bore me as a listener. I’ve worked with Yaron for quite awhile and he's a player who can really make the acoustic bass sing, so I knew he would be ideal for this album. Also, some of the faster melodies are quite challenging and I wanted the bass and guitar to play parts of them in unison. So, I needed someone who I could hand a really difficult score to, knowing he would be able to play it, even on double bass. Yaron always brings a warmth and melodic sensitivity to his solos and I felt that would really suit this music well.
Tell me about your approach as a bandleader. How do you direct musicians in order to get the best work out of them?
I’m philosophically opposed to telling improvising musicians what to do, so any direction I give is minimal. If I ask musicians to play on one of my albums, it's because I have great regard for them as players. Therefore, I don't feel I have the right to try to influence what they play too much. Nor do I feel that trying to strongly influence what someone plays brings out the best performances in them.
If someone is playing in a way which I really feel is not fitting with the music or is taking it too far away from the feeling of the composition, I will say something. But generally speaking this usually only happens when a musician is too caught up in his or her own playing and not really listening to the meaning of the music as a whole. This was never an issue with Yaron or Asaf, they are both very intuitive players who listen to what everyone else is doing and play in a way sympathetic to the feeling of each piece. That's what I'm looking for. If I've chosen the right musicians then I really don't need to direct them too much. I have a lot of respect for other musicians. So, I don't feel I should be interfering with what they do in any sort of dictatorial way. However, I will make suggestions about how we, as a group, might approach a piece or sometimes explain how I see the approach or feel of a particular piece. But from there I tend to let people play what they feel. The way I look at it, if I've written the piece effectively and chosen the right people for the project then there shouldn't be a huge need to tell people what to do.
Detail the creative process that drove the compositions.
I draw on my imagination, but my imagination is very linked to the outer world as well as the inner. I can be very empathetic about other people—even with people I don't know. So, if I’m in the city, I look around at people and I can imagine what might be going on in their emotional lives, including the joy, tragedy, loneliness, friendships, excitement, and every shade of feeling. Of course, I don't know these people, so it's all imaginary. But I know that something similar to what I imagine is true for countless people everywhere. I use this for inspiration and I often like to sit in a cafe in a crowded city to compose.
Sometimes, a real place I’m in will trigger a very strong atmosphere for me, like a particular street in a city or some house somewhere in the countryside. It could be anywhere. The feelings I get associated with this atmosphere can be quite overwhelming or very subtle. There was a time when these impressions were coming thick and fast with so much intensity I was finding it quite difficult to deal with at times. Eventually, I figured out how to control them, but I still find them a real source of inspiration for music.
The composing process for me is about rendering these impressions in musical form, writing the notes that will recreate this same feeling when I hear it. Sometimes it's just an atmosphere which I need to create. Sometimes it's an emotional story of a person, people, a time or a place. When composing, it can be quite tricky sometimes to to translate a particular atmosphere into music, or to find exactly the right notes to create a particular emotional journey. But I've become better at it as time has gone on and it's a composing challenge I really enjoy.
How does improvisation inform your composition process?
I don't see a huge separation between the two. For me, improvising is composing in real time and composing is improvising slowed down with an added "undo" function. Both very much feed into each other for me as well. Composing for me can involve a lot of searching and experimenting, whereas improvising rarely does. With improvising, I hear or sense what I want to play in the moment. I will hear or sense a musical phrase, idea or theme and I'll play that, but I don't know what I'll play after that, until I get there. It's about trying to play what the music makes me feel and hear.
With composing, however, if I can't hear exactly what the feeling is in music terms, I will have to experiment and search around in the musical ether to find something which fits the feeling. Sometimes that takes quite a bit of hard work. But this is also one of my favorite parts, because once I find the right notes to express a feeling, I've discovered something new I didn't know before.
There are big differences between composing for classical musicians and improvising musicians. When composing for classical musicians, you can write every detail and nuance of what you hear and explore any or all of the implications presented by each musical idea. I was recently privileged to be asked to compose a piece for the great classical pianist Kathryn Stott. I knew that someone at this level can play anything you throw at them, so I didn't need to worry about constraining things technically. This gave me the freedom to create huge sweeping arpeggios and complex rhythms, which was fantastic from a composing point of view. There’s one main section of the piece which is from variations on a repeating chord progression and melody which underlies everything in the section. I was able to explore many aspects, inflections and implications of the harmonies and rhythms, which result in all the variations upon which the section is based. This isn’t the sort of thing you can do when composing for improvisers. Kathryn is a player who’s able to pull a huge range of emotion out of the music, from quiet poignancy to great surges of power and rhythmic dynamics. So, composing a piece for her was an opportunity to write music which fully draws upon all these areas. These are all things I love about composing for classical musicians which you really can't do when composing for improvisers.
Composing for improvisers is quite different. You need to leave room for them to do what they do. If you write in too much detail, they won't have the space to improvise. But at the same time, you have to write in enough of the essential notes, so that the music retains its fundamental story and atmosphere even while the musicians improvise. For me, this is part of the fun and challenge of composing music for improvisers. The way I usually compose, the idea is that the musicians will embellish the story which is already in the music. Or they will tell their own story, but within the context of the musical story or mood of the piece. In composing terms, this means honing it down to just the essential notes—the notes which are needed to create the atmosphere and story, but no more. Every note I write in a chord is important. There's nothing surplus and also nothing that can be removed without taking away from the essential meaning of the piece. So there’s plenty of room and freedom for improvisers in what I write, but at the same time I want the central story and atmosphere of the piece to remain intact.
How has your guitar technique evolved in recent years?
I’m always trying to push the boundaries of what I can do. This is purely because I want to be able to play more of what I can hear in my head. So I've worked on lots of areas of my playing since then. I think some of the areas which have most changed are my underlying approaches to certain rhythmic things and my use of pitch manipulation. The rhythmic things are hard to describe, because I'm talking about underlying rhythmic structures. There are a number of areas of rhythmic patterns I've been working on for a long time, which have all crystallized recently and have opened up new possibilities in my playing.
I added a sustainer to my guitar about four years ago, just to see what it would be like. Within minutes of switching it on, I knew I would never be without it again. It was revelatory. This is a device which allows you to sustain any note for as long as you hold it down. It's not an effect. It works even when the guitar isn’t plugged in. The signal from one of the pickups is used to keep the vibration of the strings going via a magnetic field.
I've found ways to get a lot of sustain on my guitar which has meant I can work a lot more with pitch changes. So using the tremolo arm, I can move the pitch of a single note to different notes as it sustains in a very smooth glissando way. It also means I can do all manner of subtle pitch manipulations with my fingers on the strings, so I've explored new areas and developed new techniques there. There's a lot more to pitch than some people might imagine. I’ve also been working with changes to the tone and texture of the note as it is sustaining, partly with the hands and partly with electronics, so this is another area I've been expanding in my playing, I think there's a lot more to explore here.
I think the album I did recently with René von Grünig, Cinema Obscura, made an impact on how I play. René has such an original concept musically that doing an album with him is like a journey through a huge range of musical landscapes. So, the playing situations I encounter are extremely varied. René will often present me with an idea to play over which is so different from anything I've played over before, that it forces me to invent something completely new, or new for me anyway. But it's a challenge I really enjoy because it means I come away with a bigger musical vocabulary and more varied ways of playing the guitar. For example, on Cinema Obscura, on the track “Night," there’s a part where I’m playing over what is essentially classical music, or on “Lemon Boulevard” it's bluesy jazz with a swing feel. Or on “Jemma El Fna,” which to me is an almost Dada-esqe track, I’m soloing over a completely wild rhythmic structure. I really enjoy music which puts me in a position where I have to come up with something different. René is one of the most inventive musicians I’ve ever worked with and he takes an approach to working with musical atmosphere and stories which is similar to my own.
The other musician who has had an influence on how my playing has changed is Kevin Kastning. The fact that our records are completely improvised sessions with nothing written and the fact that Kevin has such an array of completely original musical directions he can go in, means that again I am playing within an incredible variety of musical landscapes on any given record. I think these challenges and the variety of new musical places, like the music with René, has really helped push my playing to new places.
Tell me about the instruments you focused on for this album.
I'm still primarily playing the Patrick Eggle LA. There are a lot of things I like about this guitar, so I feel no need to change at the moment. However, I’ve added and modified the guitar recently. I’ve been playing through a laptop for a while now as it gives me so much more sound creation and sound altering possibilities. For me, the interesting thing is being able to change the sound in real time as I play.
I read many reviews which have described me as playing guitar synth even though I haven't used synth once on the entire album. So, I thought I'd explain how and when I use guitar synth. I use it for playing chords, but very rarely for melodies or solos. On the track "Voltaic," I mixed a synth sound in and out with my solo sound using a pedal to create that "monstrous" guitar sound. But 99 percent of what you hear on my albums is just electric guitar with effects. I think perhaps the fact that I don't use the stock guitar sounds, I have all that sustain, and I do a lot of unusual bending makes people assume I'm playing guitar synth, because they're not used to hearing a guitar do that.
I also process the guitar signal to create breathy and rasping sounds, as well as change the texture of the notes. I'm only doing this occasionally on Proof of Light, but I use it more extensively on some of the pieces I do with Kevin Kastning. In order to be able to manipulate these sounds as I play, I've added a touch controller to the guitar just below where my right hand is. This allows me to have really detailed control of sound manipulation on the laptop. I have various pedals which also control things on the laptop. The potential of what can be done by processing the guitar signal in real time with software is huge. I feel like I'm only scratching the surface. I've got lots of new ideas I'm excited about in this area which will be happening on future projects.
What were the biggest creative challenges you faced when making Proof of Light?
The idea I had for Proof of Light was to record a trio album that didn't fall into the usual jazz trio formula but still had all the improvisation potential that setting allows. On the guitar, I didn't want to take the playing approach that’s often used in a jazz trio setting, nor did I want to use that sound on the guitar. There's nothing wrong with the traditional approach or traditional guitar sounds. But my interest lies more in approaching the format like a horn player or singer. This approach, both to playing and to guitar sound, doesn’t lend itself to playing chords, which is the usual role for guitar in a trio setting.
Out of necessity, guitar players usually have to play the chords and the melody at the same time. However, it’s not possible to mix my preferred approach to playing melodies while playing the chords at the same time. The way I play melodies, each note is articulated in such a way that it potentially sounds different. The pitch is fluid, the tone varies, the attack, sustain and vibrato are all used to express nuances the melody suggests to me. This horn or vocal-like approach is not physically possible to do while playing chords, as it requires both hands to move around continuously for each melody note. Also, as I am constantly manipulating the pitch, the chords would be bending all over the place if I tried to mix them with the melody notes.
In order to have chords accompanying the melody, I used electronics to sustain guitar chords in some parts and I used loops in others. This freed me up to play melodies the way I like to, while still having the harmony there. I could have used a keyboard player to cover the chords of course, but I really wanted to keep this record as a trio. A fourth person improvising gives you a completely different interaction dynamic. Keeping it just to the three of us allowed the mobility, space and openness that you only get with a trio, and that's something I was particularly interested in.
In your teaching, you discuss the issue of dealing with “The Attention Conundrum.” Elaborate on what that means and how it influenced your work on the new album.
This idea influenced my work on Proof of Light in the same way it influences the playing on all my albums. The issue this deals with is something many, if not most musicians who reach a certain level, experience. There's an example on my website where you throw a piece of paper into the waste paper basket without thinking, and it goes straight in. But when you try again you inevitably miss, and repeated efforts meet similar results. So the question is, what happened the first time? Was it luck? Of course not. The first time you weren't paying attention to how you did it, you just let your brain get on with it. In the subsequent attempts you started to pay attention to how you threw the paper, and you got in the way, hence you missed. Your conscious mind knows nothing about controlling muscle groups or the velocity versus air resistance of a ball of paper. So on subsequent attempts to throw the paper, your conscious mind got in the way of the part of your brain that knows what to do.
This concept can be looked at when playing an instrument. Exactly how you pay attention and what you pay attention to, can have a great effect on how quickly you learn and how well you play. Part of the reason really good musicians can play so well is of course, that they've done all the practicing. But the other reason is that they've learned how to pay attention to what they're doing in the right way, and how not to pay attention in the wrong way.
There are ways of concentrating on this very aspect of attention, at any level of playing, and I find it can really help students. For example, every musician at any level experiences good and bad days. It is possible, by paying attention in the right way, to learn what is different about the good days and recall that, at will, every time you play. Of course it doesn't replace years of practice, but controlling your attention is something you can learn pretty quickly and it does speed things up. It means the practice you do will pay higher dividends. Even if you've been playing quite a while, these same things can often help open doors, not just to improved technique, but also to learning how to get into the zone better when playing. It's something I wish I'd been taught when I was 20, it would have saved me a lot of time. This is not a topic you normally come across in teaching, but I actually find it is as useful a skill for students to learn as any of the expected topics like technique and theory.
Some of your soloing is almost vocal-like. Is that a conscious element you’re pursuing?
Yes, I am very influenced by vocalists. Quite a few years ago I decided to stop listening to guitarists. It was painful, but I felt it had to be done. The reason is that I would listen to great guitar players like Pat Metheny or Allan Holdsworth and then I'd pick up the guitar and I just find myself falling into playing too much like them. That's not what I wanted. When I didn't listen to guitarists for a while, but instead listened to other instruments, I would hear things in my head which were different, and I could sense new things I wanted to play. But as soon as I started listening to guitarists again, I would quickly lose sight of my ideas because my head would become so full of theirs.
I made the decision to only listen to other instruments like sax, trumpet, piano, and vocals. I found I could listen to and try to copy Coltrane, Garbarek, Miles, or Jarrett as much as I wanted and I wasn't going to sound anything like them because the guitar is such a different instrument from what they play. It was impossible to translate what they played directly on to the guitar. I could only play an approximation or even just an impression of what they played. This was liberating for me for two reasons. It meant I could try to copy as much as I liked without fear of sounding like the players I was listening to. Just as importantly for me, I found trying to play what they played automatically meant I was forced to go outside the usual guitar vocabulary.
Then I started listening to vocalists and realized just how much there was to learn from them. They usually don't sing as many notes as other instruments, but the great vocalists are masters of tonal variation and inflection. Few instrumentalists can rival them in this regard.
So I started listening to great vocalists like K.D. Lang, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Betty Carter, to name a few, and a lot of Indian classical singers as well. I spent a lot of time trying to emulate the way they control pitch and tone. By doing this, I ended up developing some different techniques and extending my existing playing techniques. For me a lot of it is just hearing differently. When I got my head away from always hearing guitar lines, it was easier to hear vocal lines and relate them more directly to the guitar. Before that, I couldn't hear this connection. I just heard vocals or sax as completely different instruments with no real relation to what happens on the guitar. But eventually after a lot of experimenting on the guitar and trying to push my boundaries, I started to hear guitar as not so far apart from vocals or sax. At that stage, I started being able to steal ideas from them.
Tell me about the making of “A Conversation We Had” and how its solos tell a story.
Because music is by nature abstract, it allows you to abstract the story in the music. So, when I'm playing a solo, I'm not trying to tell any specific literal story about any one person or any particular set of events. It's all more abstract than that. It's about the moods and feelings the music generates. The story is written into the chords I am soloing over. The story is already there in the feeling they create for me, and it's that which I react to when soloing. You could say that each chord is like a new chapter in the story, or is the next part of an emotional story of a time and place. But these are just metaphors. Music is abstract and a set of chords can mean many subtle different things each time you hear or play over them. Yet for me, something of the original feeling or story that inspired them remains and is the context within which all the stories of the solos are told. Words can't really describe this, only music can.
“Voltaic” is another highlight. Provide some insight into the compositional focus and how the piece emerged.
This piece is about an emotional place which is very on the edge. So, the opening chord progression and melody is about building up to and exploring that feeling. Then I played a series of notes on the guitar that I fed into the laptop which creates a sustaining chord. This acts as a backdrop throughout the next section. This chord for me encapsulates a particular feeling of being on the edge of fear or anger, or something else altogether, but for me it's a very strong sensation. It was this mood or atmosphere, set up by the tension in the chord which powered the group improvisation during that section. We didn't have a plan for what was going to happen in that section apart from the chord and that the section was going to be improvised. I knew when I was composing the piece that I would use some of those huge monster guitar sounds, but I didn't realize the section would take off into the extremes of energy which it did.
I think this track points to something which is central to how I approach music. I feel it is essential that there is a willingness to go wherever the music takes me, whether it's to emotional places which are very dark, or very uplifting, or even humorous. I think it partly explains why the music on Proof of Light is so varied. The same could be said of Cinema Obscura and some of my previous albums. If I start to vet or censor the feelings that come up or the places and directions the music suggests, that means I'm starting to think too much and trying to consciously control things and that is something I know I need to avoid.
So, I need to be prepared not to do these things. Sometimes the music will go to a place of deep pathos or to a place of light and beauty or it might go to a place which is like standing on a precipice overlooking something terrifying. I have to be prepared to go there, wherever it is, and play what I find there. That in a sense is how I see my task as a composer and improvising musician.
I find that when improvising, vetting what I play or trying to apply preset ideas about where I think the music should go, destroys the flow and disrupts the music. It's very similar for me when composing. I don't like to get too intellectual about music. For me, music is about feeling and atmosphere, not about thinking or concepts. Of course, I use many concepts and techniques when composing, but they’re just tools in service of rendering a feeling, atmosphere or story into the music. For me it's usually about finding some way to create something I can already hear or at least half hear or at the very least feel. So any thinking or composing techniques need to have a minimum impact on an accurate rendering of that.
Describe how Eastern influences find their way into your voicings.
I spend as much time listening to music from other countries and cultures as I do listening to American or European jazz or to classical or rock. One thing that interests me is music which, for one reason or another, has not been influenced by or influenced very little by Western music. I have a lot of recordings which were done in the ‘50s and ‘60s of folk and tribal music from many parts of the world. This was a time when Western pop and rock music were not yet available to these people. So, what they are playing is something very different from what we are all now used to hearing. These days, it’s very difficult to find anywhere where there isn’t access to a radio, TV or the internet and the influence of what is now global pop and rock music. But even now there are groups who play traditional folk music and consciously keep to its traditional form and there are classical musics from various countries which are uninfluenced by modern music.
I find these types of music are full of potent ideas which I haven't heard before and some of it is extraordinary and wonderful. I have recordings of music from almost every corner of the globe and there is music I love from most of these places. In terms of Eastern influences, Japanese traditional and classical music has had quite an influence on me, as has music from Pakistan and India. Indian music has a vast tradition and is some of the most sophisticated in the world. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Indian classical music and exploring the scales, inflections and phrasing, particularly of vocalists, bowed instruments and flute.
What does it mean for you to have Proof of Light come out on the MoonJune label?
Leonardo Pavkovic, the head of MoonJune, is a visionary record label owner. He’s one of those very rare individuals who puts the quality of the music above everything else. For this, and many other reasons, he’s working with some of the best musicians out there. I'm honored to be on the label. Working with Leonardo is great because he has a very deep understanding of this type of music. He knows every instrumental album of any significance that's been released over the past 40 years. And in the context of that he’s releasing his choice of new and contemporary artists. Leonardo is also inspiring and facilitating many new musical collaborations among his favorite artists which are resulting in some amazing records. It's a fantastic label and I couldn't be more pleased to be on it. On a personal level, Leonardo is also a great person to work with.
You’ve worked in great depth with Kevin Kastning in recent years. What makes that musical partnership unique?
It's great playing with Kevin because he's one of the most original voices on the guitar today. He plays the instrument in an almost orchestral way. To allow this, he has acoustic guitars built to his specifications. He recently had one made with with 36 strings. Having said that, he has just as unique an approach on six-string classical guitar. So, it's great for me playing with someone who has such an original musical voice and I also find it fantastic playing with the sounds he creates from some of his extended instruments.
What I do with Kevin is entirely improvised. When the recording light goes on, we have no idea what we're about to play. Sometimes we'll decide on a tempo or some other basic aspect like whether the piece will be primarily rhythmically based or not. Apart from that, we don't know what we'll be playing until it happens.
One of the things which I think makes what Kevin and I do work, is that we’re both composers as well as improvisers, so we are both thinking compositionally when we improvise. When I say thinking, I don't actually mean thinking. I don't think while improvising; thinking gets in the way. I'm just hearing or sensing what should happen and following the feeling of the music. I think Kevin would agree it's similar for him. He often says that when improvising, he tries to get out of the way and let the music happen. I think that's a great way to put it.
Yet, in the music with Kevin there seems to be a sense of a higher structure going on as well, like we’re sensing how the overall composition of a piece should go. I think this is possibly because the way we’re playing is very mobile. Either of us can change to anything at any moment and each of us is listening closely to what the other is doing, as well as what we’re doing ourselves. This combination seems to allow us to move together in the same direction, turn corners together, and build crescendos, as well as explore each mood that happens in a piece. This lends itself to improvising with a sense of composition. We think of it as composing in real time, because from our point of view that is what we are doing.
This is unique in my experience as a player because although I do a lot of improvising in different contexts. There's almost always some sort of predetermined form and usually there is a predetermined harmonic progression which everyone is following. When I play with Kevin, that whole harmonic progression and structure of the piece is part of the improvisation. I think the other reason this works, and one of the things I really like about playing with Kevin, is that he’s fearless. He’ll go wherever the music demands, however dark or however light, however abstract or concrete. I try to do the same.
The combination of all these things allows us to go to musical places which I would have no other way to get to. It's amazing to have a situation in which that's possible.
How will 2016 unfold for you?
It’s going to be a very busy year. I just played on the new Dwiki Dharmawan album, which I also mixed, which combines jazz with Indonesian influences. I’m also in the final stages recording a new album with Jane Chapman and Adriano Adewale on percussion. In addition, I’m recording a new band album with Asaf Sirkis and Yaron Stavi in February with various keyboardists. I’ll also be recording an album with Markus Reuter in February. I’m very excited about this one. I think it’s going to be really interesting. Our discussion about what we’re going to do will lead us in some very interesting directions. Other projects coming up include a duo album with Dewa Budjana and a new recording with Kevin Kastning titled Eleven Rooms, inspired by the paintings of Vermeer.
Talk about the challenges of trying to survive as an artist pursuing left of center music in today’s industry climate.
I'm sure there are alternative views worth considering, but here's how I see it. On the one hand it is now possible to get left of center music to audiences across the globe in a way which would not have been possible in the past. On the other hand, this means anyone can do it with any sort of music. The result is that there is literally so much choice out there for the listener that it can be impossible to know where to look. You might spend every waking hour listening to new music and still miss all the best stuff. That's where, for lack of a better word, curation comes in.
I think a lot of listeners are now looking to people they trust to act as musical curators. To a degree this has always been true of course, but I think the importance of music curation has suddenly become more important than it has been in the past. Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune is a great example of this. Leonardo is as knowledgeable about music as anyone I've ever met, and he devotes himself to finding out what's out there and what's great. Because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the great music, dating from now, back to the ‘60s and beyond, he's in a great position to compare the quality of new things which come along. So, people trust that if MoonJune puts something out, Leonardo has decided it's really worth hearing. That's what I mean by curating. A small number of record labels have taken this approach in the past, but I think this may be much more the way things go in the future.
Some people have got it into their heads that for some reason it’s okay not to pay for music or not pay very much for it. I know it seems like the norm today, almost to the point where people discourage you from even questioning it. But I think history will see this as a very odd period indeed—one of those times when vast numbers of people agreed on a premise that just didn’t make logical sense when seen from outside our early 21st century Internet cultural bubble. How can any industry survive and flourish, produce the best new work and support the best established and new artists, without the income any other industry would require?
Making good music takes time, a lot of time, and it is really hard work; it is as hard as any other job. On top of that, musicians and record labels take a risk, like any business producing a new product. You risk all that time making it, often borrow the money to produce the product and, if it sells, you get compensated and funding for the next product. If it doesn't sell, then fair enough, people didn't like your product or your marketing wasn't effective. But to have a product which people do like and do use, and yet, not get paid properly for it, how would that work with any other business? It wouldn't.
I have hopes for the future though. I think there are a growing number of discerning music listeners out there. People who understand the work that goes into making quality music, who want to pay properly for the music they listen to and who want to own their music collection either as digital hi-res or on CD.
There are some companies like Bandcamp which are catering both to people who want to stream music and those who wish to have their own copy. But they are also making sure the musicians and labels are paid properly. You buy your music in the normal way, you download it and own it. But you can also stream anything you've bought as well. So, the musicians get paid and the listener has the advantages of owning their own music.
There are people who feel everything that can be done with guitar has been done. What’s your reaction to that perspective?
Absolutely not. There’s way more that can be done. That reminds me of the old saying about how every combination of notes has been played before. Of course, that's true but it doesn't stop people from coming up with new and original music. I don't think it's any different with the guitar. Sure, there are only so many techniques which can be done on the guitar or any instrument, but the combinations of techniques and notes are vast. There's more than enough variety of possibilities for someone with some imagination to play something new. Almost anything anyone plays on any instrument or anything someone composes for that matter, is based on combinations of things they've heard somewhere at some point before. Yet this doesn't stop people from continually coming up with new ideas.
Perhaps when people say everything has been done on the guitar, they mean there are no new techniques to be discovered. Even that I don't believe is true. I have discovered more than 20 different ways to sound a note on the guitar and I'm sure there are more. There are myriad ways of moving between notes, using countless unique slurs. The number of things that can be done while a note is sustaining is also huge. I've only just begun to explore what's possible there. So, there's a lot which hasn't been done yet.